First Roosevelt, Then Reagan, and Now Trump
For the dazed and confused out there voicing concern about the continued success of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, I may have an explanation, if not an excuse. It is possible that Trump’s perch atop the Republican field is simply a sign that a large portion of the electorate, when viewed as an audience, has altered the way it receives political speech.
What Trump represents is a technological change among consumers. And while it cannot be argued that he has elevated the national discourse, such change has happened before: when Americans went from print to radio and then to television during the past 100 years.
Looking at it this way helps explain the gravity-defying trajectory of the Trump campaign since its launch in mid-June. Despite myriad predictions of his quick implosion, he has remained almost consistently in first place for the Republican nomination since July 20 (135 of 138 days through Dec. 5 to be exact, according to RCP’s polling average).
Trump’s open antagonism toward political correctness and his disdain for the establishment media’s role as the American public’s chief intermediary has not disqualified him from office, but instead has enhanced his reputation with the Republican electorate.
Early in the summer of 2015, it was obvious something was different about the way Trump performed on the political stage. His refusal to apologize for any insult, his simple fourth-grade-level word choice and sentence structure, combined with a snarky, belligerent Twitter feed has created the impression he is successfully “trolling” his critics on a massive scale across every possible communication medium.
The circus-like nature of his candidacy in turn created a feedback loop on cable news television that, over time, is worth billions of dollars in free airtime. As an example, consider that during a 24-hour-period on July 8-9, CNN anchors and guests said the word “Donald Trump” on the air an incredible 239 times, with much of the commentary focusing on the unapologetic nature and perceived offensiveness of his on-air interviews and statements published on his Twitter account.
The New York City-based businessman has spent decades in the media spotlight as a minor celebrity. So when combined with the thousands of hours spent performing over the 12-year-run of his “lightly scripted” reality television show on NBC, “The Apprentice,” Trump has a competitive advantage among the candidates as it relates to “viral” social media. Trump is merely taking into politics the practices and habits of his “reality” performances that focus on dramatic tension between participants at the expense of nuance and understanding. This “reality” trend started with MTV’s “The Real World” in the early 1990s and reached mainstream appeal with shows like “Survivor,” the “Real Housewives” franchise and, in the closest analog to Trump’s candidacy, MTV’s hit show “Jersey Shore,” which ran from 2009 to 2012. For those who discount “Jersey Shore’s” relevance in a political context, it’s worth remembering a joke told by President Obama during the televised 2010 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
The upshot is that he now has 5 million Twitter followers. This is more—nearly 1 million more—than Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Lindsey Graham combined.
Video Killed the Radio Star
In the 20th century, the two greatest presidential communicators were Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Each used his mastery of the transformative communication mediums of their times, radio and television, respectively, to leverage their political gifts.
Roosevelt’s skill as a radio orator is credited with being one of the reasons the country survived the Great Depression without more social unrest. Even earlier, the new medium helped launch his national political career. The first Democratic convention broadcast on radio was in July 1924, aired by a network of 16 stations in 12 cities. Roosevelt’s nomination of New York Gov. Al Smith was later viewed as a highlight of the convention (Smith didn’t win the nomination that year).There is almost an accidental quality to it. Roosevelt’s skill as a writer was undeniable, and his baritone voice would have been an asset in any era. But those traits were complemented by something usually viewed as a handicap: FDR’s lack of mobility after contracting polio several years earlier. The disease forced him to remain stationary while speaking, and therapy after his illness involved breathing and diaphragm exercises the helped his voice projection, all of which put him in the vanguard of U.S. politicians proficient on the radio airwaves.
Meanwhile, at that 1924 convention, old-style orators such as William Jennings Bryan could not keep themselves from wandering around the platform, often speaking out of range of the microphone, making much of his address lost both to history and the listening public.
Ronald Reagan’s skill in front of a camera was less accidental. He acted in more than 60 movies from the late 1930s to the early 1960s and hosted 200 weekly episodes of “General Electric Theater” on CBS from 1953-1962 -- a time when Reagan’s political views were evolving from that of a New Deal Democrat to limited-government conservative.
Reagan’s great skill on television was apparent nearly every time he spoke. For an insight into the genesis of such performances, view the interview by RealClearPolitics Washington Bureau Chief Carl Cannon with Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan. Noonan was Reagan’s speechwriter during the mid-1980s and wrote the poignant five-minute speech Reagan gave on Jan. 28, 1986 in the aftermath of the space shuttle Challenger explosion.
The Revolution Will Be Twittered
Trump’s speeches lack the gravitas of those by Reagan or Roosevelt, but of course that’s not the point. Trump operates as he does because he can’t be shamed into behaving properly, and his audience doesn’t want him to. In this way, Trump supporters and the Black Lives Matter and identity-politics campus protesters have more in common than one might think. All these constituencies are unhappy with the status quo to the point of near violence, and no longer care what their supposed betters think about them. They represent “viral” political cultures angry because they think no one is listening
Trump’s unapologetic attachment to politically incorrect statements is not a “bug” but a feature of this new media machinery and he’s good at exploiting in it. The “transgressive” nature of his statements generates more value in “earned media” than the validity of any statement on policy. This rule works whether he’s calling some Mexican immigrants “criminals,” ruminating about a database of American Muslims or telling Fox News that “you have to take out” (i.e. kill) the families of Islamic State members.
The nation has survived radio demagogues like Louisiana Gov. Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930s and television-era dividers like George Wallace in the 1960s, two decades with more than their share of cultural upheaval. If this moment tells us as much about the medium as the message, expect a “reality show” skill set to become more prominent in future political campaigns, for better—or perhaps for worse.